Last season, opponents of the Minot State University volleyball team had one primary objective: limit talented freshman Mallory Sall. When they succeeded, they normally won the match.
The Beavers - who finished 6-24 with a young, injury-depleted team in 2012 - insist they have more weapons this season. Junior outside hitter Jen Dixon and senior middle hitters Kelsey Wingo and Sara Friesen were key contributors in 2011 but sat out last season. MSU coach Travis Ward said as many as four freshmen could also play right away.
MSU opens its season at the Carroll College (Mont.) Invitational at 4 p.m. Friday against Montana Tech. The Beavers will play another match Friday and two more Saturday.
Minot State sophomore outside hitter Mallory Sall spikes the ball in a match against Winona State last year.
"Honestly, it's going to be a completely different year than last year," said Dixon, who led the team in digs and kills during her sophomore season. "We have so many options at so many different positions that are going to help us out."
The injuries to top players came at a tough time for the program, which played its first NCAA Division II season in 2012. MSU's league, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, is arguably the best Division II volleyball conference in the country.
"We had six freshmen on the court at one point and that's just kind of a crazy world to be in," said Ward, whose team finished 2-17 in the NSIC. "None of them had played a Northern Sun match or even a collegiate match. You can't do the kind of math on the change from having none to having some (experience)."
Sall emerged as a force in the NSIC last season, leading the Beavers with 399 kills, 161 more than the next-closest teammate. The 6-footer also attempted 36 percent of the team's total attacks and became noticeably fatigued during long matches.
"There's some options that can take the load off (Sall)," Ward said. "Two years ago, every team we played keyed on Jen. And last year, everyone keyed on (Sall). Obviously, that doubles your ability just having those two on the court at the same time."
The Beavers boast depth at the middle hitter positions with the return of Wingo and Friesen. Six-foot-2 sophomores Tarah Dabovich and Erin Davis each started more than 20 matches at the middle spots in 2012, when Dabovich led the team in solo blocks (11) and assisted blocks (65).
Junior Emily Byrne returns to the setter spot after averaging 8.6 assists per set last season. Ward said freshman Brooke French could also compete for playing time once she returns from an ankle injury.
Redshirt freshman setter Alex Parrone, who had a racquetball-sized cancerous tumor removed from her brain on March 22, is back practicing with the team. Parrone has been cancer-free since late June and will redshirt again this season.
"Her recovery is going great," Ward said. "We're just excited to have her back as a part of our program and running around. I got to see little bit of who she was (in a scrimmage). Just to see her back on the court and see her smiles, it's pretty amazing."
Ward said his squad won't know how good it is until a couple of weeks into the NSIC schedule. Players and coaches agree on one thing: the Beavers are more of a threat in 2013.
"I think we're a completely different team than we were last year," Friesen said. "I think other teams are going to be surprised at what we have to offer."
Daniel Allar reports on Minot State University athletics and assists with high school coverage. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar-MDN.